X-rays, also known as X-radiation, refers to electromagnetic radiation (no rest mass, no charge) of high energies. X-rays are high-energy photons with short wavelengths and thus very high frequency. The radiation frequency is key parameter of all photons, because it determines the energy of a photon. Photons are categorized according to the energies from low-energy radio waves and infrared radiation, through visible light, to high-energy X-rays and gamma rays.
Most X-rays have a wavelength ranging from 0.01 to 10 nanometers (3×1016 Hz to 3×1019 Hz), corresponding to energies in the range 100 eV to 100 keV. X-ray wavelengths are shorter than those of UV rays and typically longer than those of gamma rays.
Since the X-rays (especially hard X-rays) are in substance high-energy photons, they are very penetrating matter and are thus biologically hazardous. X-rays can travel thousands of feet in air and can easily pass through the human body.
Characteristics of X-rays – Properties
Key characteristics of X-rays are summarized in following few points:
- X-rays are high-energy photons (about 100 – 1 000 times as much energy as the visible photons), the same photons as the photons forming the visible range of the electromagnetic spectrum – light.
- X-rays are usually described by their maximum energy, which is determined by the voltage between the electrodes. It may range from about 20 kV up to 300 kV. Radiation with low voltage is called “soft” – and radiation with high voltage is called “hard”.
- Photons (gamma rays and X-rays) can ionize atoms directly (despite they are electrically neutral) through the Photoelectric effect and the Compton effect, but secondary (indirect) ionization is much more significant.
- X-rays ionize matter via indirect ionization.
- Although a large number of possible interactions are known, there are three key interaction mechanisms with matter.
- Photoelectric effect
- Compton scattering
- Rayleigh scattering
- X-rays travel at the speed of light and they can travel hundreds of meters in air before spending their energy.
- Since the hard X-rays are very penetrating matter, it must be shielded by very dense materials, such as lead or uranium.
- The distinction between X-rays and gamma rays is not so simple and has changed in recent decades. According to the currently valid definition, X-rays are emitted by electrons outside the nucleus, while gamma rays are emitted by the nucleus.
- For X-rays generated by X-ray tube, there are two different types of X-rays spectra:
- Characteristic X-rays
- Characteristic X-rays frequently accompany some types of nuclear decays, such as internal conversion and electron capture.